NATO Approves Expanded Missile Defense

Robert Golan-Vilella

The leaders of NATO’s 28 countries last month endorsed a U.S. plan to provide missile defense coverage over all European member states. At its Nov. 19-20 summit in Lisbon, the alliance also formally invited Russia to participate in the planned system, and Moscow and NATO agreed to take the first steps toward missile defense cooperation. It is unclear how far this cooperation will ultimately go.

The main result of the Lisbon meeting was the adoption of a new Strategic Concept, the alliance’s first since 1999. In that document, which is intended to guide NATO’s strategy for the next decade, the allies declared that they would adopt missile defense as a central mission, aiming to “develop the capability to defend our populations and territories against ballistic missile attack as a core element of our collective defence.”

The decision, which was expected, means that NATO will pursue a significant expansion of its existing missile defense capabilities. Currently, the alliance’s Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) program is designed only to protect deployed NATO soldiers from missiles with ranges under 1,000 kilometers. (See ACT, November 2010.) The ALTBMD program consists of a NATO command, control, and communications system into which nations can “plug” their own sensors and shooters, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder explained Nov. 22 at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Under the agreement, the United States’ own missile defense plan for Europe, the Phased Adaptive Approach, will become the predominant part of the new NATO missile defense architecture. In September 2009, President Barack Obama announced that he would not go ahead with the Bush administration’s plans to station missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic. Instead, the United States is deploying sensors and interceptors in phases as the anticipated missile threat from Iran evolves and as new technologies become available. (See ACT, October 2009.) The first phase of the new approach is scheduled to become operational in 2011.

A declaration by heads of state and government at the Lisbon summit highlighted the phased approach as “a valuable national contribution to the NATO missile defense architecture.” NATO member states other than the United States are not required to contribute new assets to the expanded system.

As a next step, the leaders directed the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s principal decision-making body, “to develop missile defense consultation, command and control arrangements by the time of the March 2011 meeting of our Defence Ministers,” the declaration said. In addition, the council is supposed “to draft an action plan addressing steps to implement the missile defence capability” by June 2011.

Reaching Out to Russia

NATO countries invited Russia to play a role in the planned missile defense arrangement, stating in the Strategic Concept that they would “actively seek cooperation on missile defence with Russia.” Russia, which has not formally committed to participating in NATO missile defense, agreed to take part in preliminary discussions to clarify exactly what Moscow’s role in the process would be. That decision was made at a Nov. 20 NATO-Russia Council meeting, which took place alongside the larger summit.

In a joint statement, the NATO leaders and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that they had “agreed on a joint ballistic missile threat assessment.” They agreed to resume joint theater missile defense exercises, which had been suspended since 2008 in the aftermath of Russia’s war with Georgia. In addition, they directed the council “to develop a comprehensive Joint Analysis of the future framework for missile defence cooperation.” Some of the main questions that this analysis will consider are what capabilities each side can provide, how they might link together effectively, and how issues such as cost-sharing will be addressed, Daalder said at the Brookings event. According to the joint statement, the progress of the joint analysis will be assessed in June 2011 at a meeting of council defense ministers.

In Lisbon, the decision to cooperate with Russia on missile defense was widely portrayed as a step toward a deeper partnership between Russia and the West. According to the Strategic Concept, “NATO poses no threat to Russia. On the contrary: we want to see a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia.” In a press conference after the summit, Obama said, “We see Russia as a partner, not an adversary.” Medvedev described the summit as “historic” in a press conference following the council meeting.

Nevertheless, questions remain about how far missile defense cooperation between NATO and Russia actually will go. In his press conference, Medvedev said that “we still need to get a full picture of just what this system will entail. The European countries themselves need to work out just what their place will be in this system and how it will all look in the end.” Medvedev laid out a series of conditions under which Russia would take part in a European missile defense system. Chief among them was equal participation. “Either we are fully involved, exchanging information and taking responsibility for particular areas, or we do not take part at all,” he said.

No Official Target

One of the most remarked-on features of the planned missile defense system is that it is not officially targeted against any specific country or group of countries. The Lisbon summit declaration simply refers to “the increasing threats posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles” as the rationale for the new plan.

This absence was perceived by many as a concession to Turkey. In the months leading up to the summit, Turkish officials insisted that countries such as Iran and Syria not be cited as “threats.” Turkey’s acceptance of the new system was critical for two reasons: NATO adopts all of its decisions by consensus, and Turkey is the United States’ first choice to host a mobile X-band radar as part of the phased approach. (See ACT, November 2010.)

Although none of the summit documents mentioned particular countries as threats, it was clear that Iran was the principal concern for many of the leaders gathered in Lisbon. French President Nicolas Sarkozy told an Associated Press reporter on the sidelines of the summit that “France calls a cat a cat: the threat of the missiles today is Iran.”